Not on the face alone: Perception of contextualized face expressions in Huntingtons disease

Hillel Aviezer*, Shlomo Bentin, Ran R. Hassin, Wendy S. Meschino, Jeanne Kennedy, Sonya Grewal, Sherali Esmail, Sharon Cohen, Morris Moscovitch

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Scopus citations


Numerous studies have demonstrated that Huntingtons disease mutation-carriers have deficient explicit recognition of isolated facial expressions. There are no studies, however, which have investigated the recognition of facial expressions embedded within an emotional body and scene context. Real life facial expressions are typically embedded in contexts which may dramatically change the emotion recognized in the face. Moreover, a recent study showed that the magnitude of the contextual bias is modulated by the similarity between the actual expression of the presented face and the facial expression that would typically fit the context, e.g. disgust faces are more similar to anger than to sadness faces and, consequently, are more strongly influenced by contexts expressing anger than by contexts expressing sadness. Since context effects on facial expression perception are not explicitly controlled, their pattern serves as an implicit measure of the processing of facial expressions. In this study we took advantage of the face-in-context design to compare explicit recognition of face-expressions by Huntingtons disease mutation-carriers, with evidence for processing the expressions deriving from implicit measures. In an initial experiment we presented a group of 21 Huntingtons disease mutation-carriers with standard tests of face-expression recognition. Relative to controls, they displayed deficits in recognizing disgust and anger faces despite intact recognition of these emotions from non-facial images. In a subsequent experiment, we embedded the disgust faces on images of people conveying sadness and anger as expressed by body language and additional paraphernalia. In addition, sadness and anger faces were embedded on context images conveying disgust. In both cases participants were instructed to categorize the facial expressions, ignoring the context. Despite the deficient explicit recognition of isolated disgust and anger faces, the perception of the emotions expressed by the faces was affected by context in Huntingtons disease mutation-carriers in a similar manner as in control participants. Specifically, they displayed the same sensitivity to facecontext pairings. These findings suggest that, despite their impaired explicit recognition of facial expressions, Huntingtons disease mutation-carriers display relatively preserved processing of the same facial configurations when embedded in context. The results also show intact utilization of the information elicited by contextual cues about faces expressing disgust even when the actually presented face expresses a different emotion. Overall, our findings shed light on the nature of the deficit in facial expression recognition in Huntingtons disease mutation-carriers as well as underscore the importance of context in emotion perception.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1633-1644
Number of pages12
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2009

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was funded by a CIHR grant to Moscovitch, an NIMH grant R01 MH 64458 to Bentin, and an ISF grant 846/03 to Hassin. We thank Alice Kim, and Lucy McGarry for their skilful help in coordinating and running the experiments. Most importantly, we thank the participants from North York General Hospital for their helpful cooperation and interest in our study.


  • Context effects
  • Facial expressions
  • Huntingtons disease mutation-carriers
  • Implicit and explicit processing


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